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The Killers Couldn’t Tour Last Year. So They Wrote an Ambitious New Concept Album

The group talks reuniting with guitarist Dave Keuning for Pressure Machine, and cautiously looks ahead to its next tour

"When I was writing these songs, I was thinking of things like Sherwood Anderson's book 'Winesburg, Ohio,'" says Brandon Flowers of the Killers' new LP.

Danny Clinch*

In the early days of the pandemic, just as it was becoming clear that the Killers’ 2020 tour wasn’t going to happen, Brandon Flowers found that his mind kept drifting back his formative years in the tiny, remote Utah town of Nephi. “There was a nostalgic longing in the air and a little bit of sadness,” the singer says. “I started thinking about where I was in the Nineties, and these stories just sort of blossomed out.”

Those stories form the basis of the upcoming Killers record Pressure Machine, due out August 13th. It’s a concept record about life in Nephi told from the perspective of various townspeople that touches on everything from prescription drug abuse and poverty to crime, homophobia, and depression. Despite the bleak tone of the record, there are touches of hope and joy sprinkled throughout it.

“When I was writing these songs, I was thinking of things like Sherwood Anderson’s book Winesburg, Ohio or that book Pastures of Heaven [by John Steinbeck],” Flowers says, “where’s it’s all these short stories that take place in this one setting. For some reason, I had the audacity to try it myself. Once I realized they were going to take place here and they were going to be true stories, everything just really fell in our laps.”

He wrote the lyrics before any of the music was created, scattering photos of Nephi around his keyboard for inspiration. Once he was ready, the band gathered at a studio in Cotati, California, with producers Jonathan Rado and Shawn Everett, the same team that worked on last year’s Imploding the Mirage. This was early 2020 and the pandemic was just beginning to rage. “It was tough,” says Flowers. “Shawn leans towards hypochondria. He was wearing glasses, goggles, and three masks in the studio. It was crazy. [Bassist] Mark [Stoermer] had struggled with [hypochondria] also, and he didn’t make it into the studio. But we also wore masks and we got tested regularly. We were pretty diligent.”

The album begins with “West Hills,” which is about a desperate Nephi townie who gets busted with hillbilly heroin. “They got me for possession of enough to kill,” Flowers sings, “the horses that run free in the west hills.”

The record somehow turn even darker on “Terrible Thing,” which centers on a gay teenager who’s contemplating suicide. “There were kids I grew up with who I didn’t know until years later that they were gay,” says Flowers. “It must have just been so hard. I think the world is moving in a more positive direction and a more inclusive direction, but this was still in the Nineties and people kept this stuff close.”

Most of the songs are drawn from Flowers’ own Nephi memories or things he’s read about in recent years, but on “Desperate Things” he veers off into a fictionalized tale of a cop who falls in love with a domestic-abuse victim, and winds up murdering her husband. It’s a tale that could have easily fit on Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and it’s unlike anything in the Killers catalog.

“I basically took a story that was a scandal in town when I had lived there, and I took some liberties in the third verse and turned it into a murder ballad,” says Flowers. “In a typical pop or rock song, there’s just two verses. It’s not until you start getting into Springsteen and [John] Prine and stuff that you get to a third or fourth verse. But it helps you flesh out a story.”

“In Another Life” and “In the Car Outside” dwell on the dashed dreams and bitter regret of middle age, but the album ends with genuine hope on “The Getting By.” “Maybe it’s the stuff it takes to get up in the morning,” Flowers sings, “and put another day in sun that holds you till the getting’s good … This whole town is tied to the torso of God’s mysterious ways.”

The album features guest appearance by Joe Pug, Sara Watkins, and Phoebe Bridgers, and it also marks the return of Killers guitarist Dave Keuning. He sat out Imploding the Mirage and the last few tours to deal with personal matters and burnout stemming from years on the road. He wasn’t involved in the entire creative process, but “In the Car Outside” and “A Pressure Machine” both began with his guitar lines, and he plays on other songs on the album.

“It was cool having him back,” says drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. “You always realize when somebody re-enters the room, or leaves the room, what they bring. It was nice to have his element back in there. We’ve been playing together for about 20 years. It felt good.”

They were nearly done with the record when they decided to send an NPR employee to Nephi to record conversations with actual townspeople. He came back with incredibly personal stories so vivid that the band decided to begin each song on the album with snippets of them.

“We were in mastering mode, but it was the last ingredient needed to complete this project for us,” says Vannucci. “It gave us more of a real-life accounting, more so than our interpretations through songs and music. … It was people with their accents and their stories. It stitched it all together for us.”

The band played a virtual gig in late June for Australia’s Splendour in the Grass festival, with Keuning and Stoermer back onstage with the group for the first time in years, but they don’t plan on launching a formal tour until March when they head down to New Zealand. They hit North America in August 2022, and you can preorder tickets here.

But first up is an August 21st appearance at Central Park’s We Love NYC concert alongside Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, LL Cool J, Elvis Costello, and many others, with tickets available online now. They’re also playing Delaware’s Firefly Festival on September 24th, and Florida’s Sandjam Music Festival in early October. As of now, according to the band, Keuning plans on joining them on the road, but Stoermer will stay at home. Touring bassist Jake Blanton will once again take his spot.

“We’re going to do a warmup gig at Terminal 5 [in New York City] before the Central Park show,” says Flowers. “We’ve done some incredible gigs at Terminal 5. I keep thinking of what song we’re going to open with. I hope I can keep my composure. Playing live is a part of our identity and something we’ve missed out on, that connection with people and that community.”

A lot of bands are on the road right now, including Dave Matthews Band, Phish, and Green Day, but the Killers are being super cautious by not booking any major headlining gigs until 2022. “We don’t want to be the band that brings back Covid, the K variant,” says Vannucci. “There’s a lot of conjecture involved in touring and liability. And just out of general respect for people out there and keeping everyone healthy, we just wanted to be careful about that and not jump the gun.”

And even though they’ll have two full albums packed with songs that they’ve never played live by the time they next hit the road, they’re already thinking about yet another record. It’s still in the very early stages. “We got together for a week in San Diego a little while ago at Dave’s house,” says Flowers. “It was the four of us together, the first time we’d done that in years. But we need to rehearse in January for the tour. I don’t know if we can find time [to finish another album], though we’ll definitely get together again before Christmas.”

In the meantime, Flowers is anxious to share Pressure Machine with the world. And working on the album finally gave him a chance to view Nephi in a very different light. “As a teenager, I wanted out,” he says. “It wasn’t until much later that I developed more of an understanding of the beauty of the place. I was so free. People didn’t even have to lock their doors. I had a different sort of upbringing there. I can appreciate that now.”

From Rolling Stone US